Title: The Mortifications
Author: Derek Palacio
Derek Palacio’s stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.
In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.
Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one’s true homeland.
Derek Palacio is a beautiful author. He brings to fiction the type of art that is necessary for poetry. I am always a fan of raw and real contemporary novels, and The Mortifications blew me away. Palacio brought to a wider audience the experience of a specific population, and he allowed the reader to connect to the characters though the reader had known the characters their whole life. From the first chapter I was drawn to the small Cuban family that the novel is centered around, and my heart broke for them again and again.
One of the techniques that I did like in this novel was that quotation marks were not used around the dialogue presented. This gave the novel a sense of being a story being told, and it made the reader connect better to the narrator. By doing this, Palacio gave us more insight into his narrator, and I found the technique to be strikingly beautiful.
I am always amazed when authors can describe how a character feels or what they are thinking in a way that reveals more than just the top layer of existence. One of my favorite quotes from the novel was:
“Hartford she understood as a machine, a contraption she might force herself into, but its clamor, all the life of the city, coalesced into a fugue noise, such that she felt herself submerges in a fugue state.”
Palacio clearly understands how humans think and feel, and he explains their actions and emotions in ways that they don’t even understand. I molded into The Mortifications like one would mold into an oversized mattress, and I have yet to come out.